There are few things more frustrating or guaranteed to cause domestic strife than getting lost, so it is perhaps unsurprising that some psychologists have dedicated considerable effort to discovering which sorts of people are best suited to learning ‘cognitive maps’, our mental representations of spaces. Much of this evidence has involved taxi drivers, who continually impress in such tests (though engineering students also do well) whilst dental students seem to struggle, despite having to learn detailed spatial maps of the cross-sections of teeth.
Jennifer Sutton and her team reported results from a group of 18 aviation students on an undergraduate program which included flying time (although they had hugely varying flight experience of between 1 and 259 hours), compared against 18 controls matched for age and video-game usage (video games have previously been shown to influence spatial cognition). Participants spent five minutes navigating a virtual town (adapted from the online game ‘Counter-Strike’), into which 6 key locations had been inserted. Later they were asked to imagine travelling between two of the locations and to indicate the direction of a third using a joystick. The researchers measured the number of degrees that the estimates were out from the true bearing. Participants were also given an ‘Object Perspective Test’, a similar test of spatial processing but without the memory element of the direction judgement test.
Sutton et al concede that there may be some other possible explanations for their findings. We don’t know, for instance, whether being a pilot helps make cognitive maps or whether people who naturally make good cognitive maps are more likely to become pilots. Also, although the researchers controlled for video game usage, one of the major variables here was the use of flight simulator games, which the trainee pilots admitted to playing far more than the controls (at least showing that their job was also their hobby). This extra flight-like experience could have contributed to the results more than their actual flight training, especially given the small amount of time some of the group had spent in the air. The only way to overcome some of these problems would be with a longitudinal study, following the development of spatial abilities in trainee pilots and controls over a number of years and beginning before their training had started. In the meantime though, if you have a pilot handy, maybe take them along on your next family holiday, just in case.
Navigation Experience and Mental Representations of the Environment: Do Pilots Build Better Cognitive Maps?
Sutton JE, Buset M, Keller M (2014) Navigation Experience and Mental Representations of the Environment: Do Pilots Build Better Cognitive Maps? PLoS ONE9(3): e90058. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0090058